Thursday, 5 November 2009

Houses of the Gunpowder Plot

Today is Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, the night on which we celebrate with fireworks and bonfires the thwarting of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Ashdown's connection with The Gunpowder Plot is tenuous, to say the least. The house was "consecrated" to Elizabeth of Bohemia by William Craven and it was Elizabeth whom the plotters intended to place on the throne of England as a puppet ruler in the event that they had been successful in killing both King James VI and I and his heir Prince Henry.

In 1605 the nine-year-old Elizabeth was living at Coombe Abbey with Lord and Lady Harington who had been entrusted with her upbringing and education. I have blogged about Coombe and its connection to the Gunpowder Plot earlier in the year and you can read about it here. In a curious co-incidence, the Craven family bought Coombe Abbey from the Haringtons in 1622, three years before they bought Ashdown and long before William Craven became the devoted follower of Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.

Coombe Abbey is in Warwickshire, and was at the centre of a thicket of properties associated with the Gunpowder Plot, some of which are lost and others that are still standing. Looking at the houses associated with the Plot shows how closely connected were the prominent Catholic recusant families who supported it, and how beautifully placed they were geographically to kidnap the young Elizabeth from Coombe and carry her off to a Catholic safe house.

Coughton Court, south of Coombe, was owned by the Throckmorton Family, who were prominent Catholics. In 1605 it was occupied by the family of Sir Everard Digby, who was one of the conspirators and the man deputed to abduct the Pricess Elizabeth from Coombe when Harington was lured away. My writing colleague Elizabeth Hanbury has blogged about her fascinating visit to Coughton Court here. It was in the drawing-room of the Coughton Gatehouse that the news was broken to Lady Digby and other Catholic supporters that the plot had failed and the conspirators, including her husband, were on the run. The gatehouse still stands as it was in the seventeenth century and visitors can enter the drawing-room where Thomas Bates, Catesby's servant, broke the bad news. The windows of the gatehouse contain heraldic glass commemorating the marriages of the Throckmortons to other prominent Catholic families including the Catesbys and the Treshams.

Ashby St Ledgers, to the east of Coombe, was the principal residence of the Catesby family. It was apparently at Ashby St Ledgers that the conspirators met to discuss the details of the Gunpowder Plot. They assembled in a room above the gatehouse that was private from the main house and also commanded a view of the surrounding area so that they were safe from the danger of sudden attack. Ashby St. Ledgers was also the place where Catesby amassed the armaments and gunpowder for use in the plot. The Gunpowder Plot Society relates that the "Gunpowder Plot Room" in the gatehouse "has its original paneling, and its atmosphere is such that it doesn't take much imagination to picture the plotters, sitting around, amid flickering candles, making their plans in here."

Huddington Court, the home of the Wintour or Winter brothers Robert and Thomas, is a stunning back and white half-timbered house said to have been built in 1340. Legend has it that the ghost of Robert Winter's wife wanders the gardens still waiting for her husband to return. The Gunpowder Plot Society was fortunate enough to be given a tour of Huddington and records the visit and details of many more of the properties associated with the plot on their excellent website.

One property far removed geographically from the focus of the Gunpowder Plot and yet devastatingly affected by the involvement of its owner in the Plot is Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. Lyveden belonged to the Tresham family. Sir Francis Tresham's mother was a Throckmorton; the family were staunch Catholics and Sir Francis died in the Tower of London for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. The heavy recusant taxes paid by the family coupled with the disaster of Sir Francis's death meant that the Treshams were ruined and the house at Lyveden never completed. Today it stands as a 400 year old ruin to the memory of a plot that was foiled and the complicated tangle of family relationships and catholic loyalties that were destroyed as a result.